Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Oil palm plantations threaten water quality, Stanford scientists say

01.07.2014

Indonesia pays a price for a lucrative crop used in many household products. Palm plantations damage freshwater streams that supply drinking water to millions of people.

If you've gone grocery shopping lately, you've probably bought palm oil.


Stanford researchers are studying the effects on water quality when land is cleared for oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. (Photo: Kimberly Carlson)

Found in thousands of products, from peanut butter and packaged bread to shampoo and shaving cream, palm oil is a booming multibillion-dollar industry. While it isn't always clearly labeled in supermarket staples, the unintended consequences of producing this ubiquitous ingredient have been widely publicized.

The clearing of tropical forests to plant oil palm trees releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas fueling climate change. Converting diverse forest ecosystems to these single-crop "monocultures" degrades or destroys wildlife habitat. Oil palm plantations also have been associated with dangerous and abusive conditions for laborers.

Significantly eroded water quality now joins the list of risks associated with oil palm cultivation, according to new research co-authored by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, who warn of threats to freshwater streams that millions ofpeople depend on for drinking water, food and livelihoods. The new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences contains surprising findings about the intensity and persistence of these impacts, even in areas fully forested with mature oil palm trees.

Land clearing, plantation management (including fertilizer and pesticide application) and processing of oil palm fruits to make crude palm oil can all send sediment, nutrients and other harmful substances into streams that run through plantations. Vegetation removal along stream banks destroys plant life that stream organisms depend on for sustenance and shade.

"Although we previously documented carbon emissions from land use conversion to oil palm, we were stunned by how these oil palm plantations profoundly alter freshwater ecosystems for decades," said study co-author and team leader Lisa M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Palm oil epicenter

Indonesia produces almost half of the world's palm oil. Home to the world's third-largest tropical forest, the country is also one of the principal emitters of greenhouse gases, due to the rapid conversion of carbon-rich forests and peatlands to other uses.

From 2000 to 2013, Indonesia's land used for oil palm cultivation more than tripled. About 35 percent of Indonesian Borneo's unprotected lowlands may be cleared for oil palm in coming years, according to previous research by Curran and the study's lead author, Kimberly Carlson, a former Stanford graduate student who is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

Curran, Carlson and their colleagues focused on small streams flowing through oil palm plantations, smallholder agriculture and forests in and around Gunung Palung National Park, a federally protected area that Curran was instrumental in establishing in 1990. They found that water temperatures in streams draining recently cleared plantations were almost 4 degrees Celsius (more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than forest streams. Sediment concentrations were up to 550 times greater. They also recorded a spike in stream metabolism – the rate at which a stream consumes oxygen and an important measure of a stream's health – during a drought.

Possible solutions

The impact of these land use changes on fisheries, coastal zones and coral reefs – potentially many miles downstream – remains unclear because this study is one of the first to examine the oil palm's effects on freshwater ecosystems. "Local communities are deeply concerned about their freshwater sources. Yet the long-term impact of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams has been completely overlooked until now," Curran said. "We hope this work will highlight these issues and bring a voice to rural communities' concerns that directly affect their livelihoods."

Potential management solutions, according to Carlson and Curran, include maintaining natural vegetative cover next to streams and designing oil palm plantations so that dense road networks do not intersect directly with waterways. These kinds of improved practices are being pioneered by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and other organizations that certify palm oil production as sustainable. Yet, Carlson said, "Our findings suggest that converting logged forests and diverse smallholder agricultural lands to oil palm plantations may be almost as harmful to stream ecosystems as clearing intact forests." Very few protections for such non-intact forest ecosystems exist.

According to Curran, extensive land conversion to oil palm plantations could lead to a "perfect storm" combining the crop's environmental effects with those from a massive El Niño-associated drought. (One is predicted this fall.) "This could cause collapse of freshwater ecosystems and significant social and economic hardships in a region," Curran said.

Curran and Carlson's study of oil palm cultivation in Indonesia has been funded with support from the NASA Land-Cover/Land-Use Change program and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

 
Contact
Lisa Curran, Stanford University Department of Anthropology: lmcurran@stanford.edu, (203) 606-4513

Kimberly Carlson, University of Minnesota: kimcarlson@gmail.com, (650) 380-3216 (Carlson is unavailable to the media until July 7.)

Terry Nagel, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 498-0607, tnagel@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

Dan Stober | Eurek Alert!
Further information:
http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2014/pr-palm-oil-water-062614.html

Further reports about: Environment cultivation ecosystems forests freshwater greenhouse plantations tropical

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Scientists team up on study to save endangered African penguins
16.11.2017 | Florida Atlantic University

nachricht Climate change: Urban trees are growing faster worldwide
13.11.2017 | Technische Universität München

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

Im Focus: Wrinkles give heat a jolt in pillared graphene

Rice University researchers test 3-D carbon nanostructures' thermal transport abilities

Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA detects solar flare pulses at Sun and Earth

17.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

NIST scientists discover how to switch liver cancer cell growth from 2-D to 3-D structures

17.11.2017 | Health and Medicine

The importance of biodiversity in forests could increase due to climate change

17.11.2017 | Studies and Analyses

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>